TIME Environment

Spending Earth Day at Ground Zero for Climate Change In America

We’ve all seen the iconic Blue Marble photo of the earth from space, the image that launched a thousand nature essays, but Bill Nelson and Piers Sellers are among the few people who have enjoyed that perspective on the planet in the flesh. Nelson is now a U.S. Senator from Florida, Sellers is a top NASA science official, and this morning, at an Earth Day hearing in my Miami Beach neighborhood, I got to hear the two former astronauts reminisce about the view from 10 million feet.

Senator Nelson recalled the color contrasts in the Amazon that illuminated the growth of deforestation. “The earth looked so beautiful, so alive—and yet so fragile,” he said. “It made me want to be a better steward of what the good Lord gave us—and yet we continue to mess it up.” Dr. Sellers remembered catching a glimpse of the Florida peninsula between his boots during a spacewalk. When you go around the world in ninety minutes, he said, you realize it’s a very small world.

“My take-home impression was that we inhabit a very beautiful but delicate planet,” said Sellers, a meteorologist who is NASA’s deputy director for science and exploration. “And the dynamic engine of planet Earth is the climate system that allows all life here to prosper and grow, including us humans.”

Now that climate is changing, and as Nelson said at the start of the South Florida hearing: “This is Ground Zero.” Scientists have documented that the seas along the Florida coastline have risen five to eight inches over the last fifty years, and Biscayne Bay now floods the streets of my neighborhood just about every month at high tide. “It’s real. It’s happening here,” Nelson said. “Yet some of my colleagues in the Senate continue to deny it.”

It is real, and it’s already a problem in my low-lying part of the world. Saltwater intrusion is increasing in the freshwater Everglades, which is causing problems for farmers in southern Miami-Dade County, and will make the government’s $15 billion Everglades restoration project even more expensive. The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that over the next fifty years, Miami-Dade’s beaches will need about 23 million cubic yards of new sand to deal with erosion. Mayor Philip Levine says Miami Beach alone plans to spend $400 million to upgrade drainage infrastructure to prepare for a warmer world. The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change’s “likely scenario” for 2010 includes seas rising as much as three feet; our county has $38 billion worth of property at three feet elevation or less. And while it’s too early to tie any particular storm to climate change, all the models predict more intense hurricanes coming through the Sunshine State. “The risk posed by coastal flooding is indisputably growing,” testified Megan Linkin, a natural hazards specialist at the reinsurance giant Swiss Re.

That’s incorrect. The risks posed by climate change, while real, are not at all indisputable. Lots of people, including most Republican politicians in Washington, still dispute them. As Senator Nelson said after the hearing, even Republican politicians in coastal areas—he cited Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—rarely acknowledge the danger their constituents face from rising seas. “That would not be a popular topic in a Republican primary,” Nelson said.

But as Dr. Sellers pointed out, the IPCC believes the main cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. And as Senator Nelson pointed out, it will take government action—he mentioned the possibility of a carbon tax—to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. “Otherwise, the planet will continue to heat up,” Nelson said.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of Congress passing a carbon tax anytime in the foreseeable future. President Obama couldn’t even get a cap-and-trade program through Congress when Democrats controlled both houses. Global warming has no juice as a political issue; people don’t think it really affects their lives.

That’s why Nelson held a hearing here at global warming’s Ground Zero, to try to show that global warming is already affecting lives. It was worth a shot, I guess. South Florida isn’t as threatened as those vanishing Pacific islands, but it’s basically America’s canary in the coal mine. Maybe my neighborhood’s outrage over the monthly lake in our Whole Foods parking lot will help spark a broader movement for change.

I doubt it, though. I get the political instinct to boil issues down to How It Can Affect You, but climate change is so urgent and invisible that if Congress has to wait for it to affect most Americans in tangible ways before taking action, Congress will be too late. Burning rivers and disappearing eagles helped build support for laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act; rising temperatures—all of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998—and extreme events like Superstorm Sandy don’t seem to be having much of a political impact. President Obama has helped launch a clean energy revolution, and he will soon propose new regulations on carbon emissions, but the public has shown little interest in the issue.

Ultimately, the local argument against climate change—it might flood your neighborhood—seems a lot less compelling than the global argument, the Blue Marble argument. This is a nice earth. It’s our home. It’s the only planet with ice cream and the Everglades and the NBA playoffs. We should try not to mess it up.

“Spaceflight allows one to stand back, or float, and literally take in the big picture,” Dr. Sellers said in his testimony. It’s a perspective we sometimes overlook back here on Earth. Otherwise, we might decide to stop broiling it.

 

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